Medford resident plans to file lawsuit, bill after guide dog injured on escalator

Nell Escobar Coakley

When his 5-year-old guide dog was badly injured in an escalator accident this summer, a local resident made it his mission to file a bill that will protect all assistance animals traveling in public places with their owners.

“My anger over the whole thing is finally gone,” said Steve Giannaros, of Wellington Circle. “But I also don’t want it to happen to anyone else. I can’t let something go on. I have to correct this problem.”

The problem is what Giannaros perceives as the shoddy treatment he received from the state after an accident on an escalator in the John W. McCormack Building in Boston.

On June 26, Giannaros and his German shepherd guide dog, Dakota, were riding the escalator upstairs from the cafeteria. Upon reaching the top, Giannaros felt a thump and heard a loud wailing coming from the animal.

“He was wailing like crazy,” Giannaros recalled with a shudder. “It was horrible. I could hear him screaming. It was really chaotic.”

Although several people immediately jumped in to help, Giannaros said it was a state trooper who really came through by driving him and Dakota to Angell Animal Medical Center.

“He was at Angell for about five days,” Giannaros said. “The doctors said the two pads of the middle toes of his right back leg were badly injured. After a few days, they said they had no way to repair it and if they tried, he couldn’t work. I was devastated. If he couldn’t work again, I would have had to give him away.”

Doctors amputated the two pads, and it took more than five weeks for Dakota to recuperate from his wounds.

“Angell said he would be fine and that he would work and live a normal life,” Giannaros said. “He’s fine now.”

In the meantime, Giannaros found himself homebound, missing several weeks of work at his job in the secretary of state’s office because he could not travel without Dakota. And it was his job to take care of the animal as well.

“He had stitches for four weeks and his foot was in a cast,” he said. “When he got the cast removed, he was very raw.”

Giannaros, whose vision has failed over the past 10 years, spent his time at home not only caring for his dog, but getting angrier and angrier. Especially when a friend called him and told him the escalator Dakota had been injured on was running again 30 minutes after the accident.

“I got really mad,” he said. “A half an hour later, they mopped up the blood like the whole thing never happened.”

The situation was compounded after he said he was told that another guide dog was injured the same way on the same escalator only a month before Dakota.

“That just made me feel horrible,” he said. “What if a little kid or an old woman’s shoe got caught in that escalator?”

And so Giannaros started looking into the laws and proper procedures governing escalators in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The investigation

While homebound, Giannaros started making some calls. First, he tried the Department of Public Safety, where he spoke to an escalator inspector named Lenny Chase. He said this man told him that state law specifically states if an accident occurs, the escalator must be shut down until it is fixed — and it can only be turned back on once the DPS inspects its safety.

Giannaros said Chase told him no one had filed a report about the accident with DPS. About three weeks after the accident, Giannaros called Chase again, but was referred to another inspector, whom he said has never called him, despite leaving several phone messages.

Giannaros said he then called the building’s management, the Bureau of State Office Buildings, in order to obtain a full report of the accident. With no calls returned, he filed his own report.

“By then, they said they filed a report with Public Safety and that it was out of their hands,” he said. “It seemed like everyone was passing me off to everyone else.”

Fed up, Giannaros called the Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD). After speaking with the director herself, Giannaros said he was told the case was not discriminatory in nature and that MOD could not help him.

“They seemed like they didn’t want to get involved because this was another state agency,” he said. “They suggested I find outside counsel.”

By September, Giannaros had received no telephone calls from anyone, despite his persistence. And to top it all off, he received a $3,000 bill from Angell for Dakota’s care.

But there was one more surprise in store.

“I lost my job,” he said, with a shake of his head. “My boss called and said I had two options: a leave of absence with no pay or a voluntary layoff.”

Giannaros took the latter, choosing to go back to graduate school to study disability issues. He also paid off Dakota’s hospital bill, although he plans to file a small claim against the state for negligence in failing to keep the escalator in safe working condition.

Yet, he couldn’t let go of the fact that no one seemed to care about the problematic escalator or the fact that his dog was injured.

“It’s not like he was the first dog to be hurt,” he said. “I think they thought I would just give up.”

Second investigation

But he didn’t give up. Not even close.

In August, Giannaros started writing to the local and Boston media about the accident and while he received a call here and there, no one seemed interested in his story.

“I have no idea why,” he said. “None of this makes sense.”

After hearing Giannaros’ story, the Transcript contacted the Division of Inspection, a DPS office which, according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s “Commonwealth of Massachusetts Citizens’ Guide to State Services” Web site, “is responsible for the annual inspection of all existing elevators, sidewalk elevators, dumbwaiters, hosts, lifts, escalators and moving stairways and for the plan review/inspection of all new installations in the state.”

An official in the office, who did not identify himself, declined to comment, stating that any requests for information should be made in writing to the legal office of the DPS. The official transferred the Transcript to a media official, who failed to return a message requesting the state laws and regulations.

A further call to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the DPS, was transferred to Communications Director Terrel Harris, who asked an e-mail be sent with specific questions regarding the case.

In mid-September, the Transcript sent several questions to Harris, requesting the following information: the process for an inspection following an escalator accident, the last two dates of inspection for the escalators at McCormack and if the DPS had received any incident reports involving guide dogs in the building. An additional request was made to speak to Chase.

Harris stated escalators are inspected annually, the last dates being June 16 and June 18, 2008.

He added that Chapter 4 of state regulations clearly states that, “Once an owner learns that a person has sustained a serious injury in an elevator accident, the elevator shall be immediately shut down until express consent to resume operation is granted by a supervisor of elevator inspectors employed by the Department.  In the event of such an accident, the owner shall be responsible to ensure that the elevator and area surrounding the elevator are secured and are not disturbed, cleaned, or altered in any way until such time as an inspector has completed an investigation. The only exception to this requirement shall be acts in furtherance of ensuring the safety of the area or a person, or for the extraction of an injured person.”

He went on to say the state had received no report from Steve Giannaros about the accident and that the DPS was notified orally by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency about the McCormack Building incident.

He also stated it would “not be possible” to speak to Chase.

“Bottom line: neither the statute (G.L. c.143, s.66) nor regulations require that DPS be notified or a report be filed in a situation like this,” Harris wrote in his e-mail. “If the injury that the dog sustained happened to a person, we’d have a whole different story. Then, the unit would have to be shut down and a full report filed in accordance with the regs including the section cited above. Apparently, the comb plate was broken when the incident occurred. That was fixed and looked at by one of our inspectors to make sure it was done properly.”

In a follow up e-mail, Harris said that inspection was done July 9, 2009, although he could not say when the actual repairs took place.

“I’m not surprised this their response,” Giannaros said. “It’s just a dog. That makes me angry. I think it’s awful they didn’t check into it after the first dog was injured.”

Did they or didn’t they check into the problematic escalator? And what, if anything, has the state done to make sure another accident doesn’t occur? Part two of this series will be released next week.

The Transcript